on’t you wish you could crawl inside the head of a great young adult fiction writer like say, Patricia Reilly Giff, Bruce Coville or Lois Lowry?
What the heck are they thinking when they start a book? Perhaps they’re able to tap into an ‘inner teen’ that appears with regularity to deliver the next sure-fire YA best seller. Maybe they disguise themselves as teenagers, hang out in malls and gather stories by osmosis. Yeah, right. My guess is they work hard at whatever idea presents itself and then run it to ground until it’s wholly a story.
There are many and varied gifts these writers possess, but one thing they all have in common is—that slippery eel of the writing world—voice.
“Crude, tentative, tender, bold, sarcastic or comical, each has a place in the young adult genre.”
Just as you have your own particular speaking voice, you also have a “voice” that comes across in your writing. The idea you have in your head comes out in a string of words onto paper. How those words are placed in relation to each other (syntax) and what words you choose (diction) are the mechanisms that reveal your unique voice. Take a look at these two sentences:
- “Aw, crud,” said Lester. He turned quickly to see if anyone was looking. If he ran now, nobody would know who spilled the glue.
- Uh oh, Lester thought. Now what? Maybe he should walk away quickly, and nobody would notice the spilled glue for a while.
Each sentence presents the same scenario but how the character handles it is shown in the words used to convey his thoughts, and we get two different pictures of this guy Lester.
The tone or “voice” is crude in the first sentence with the character saying, “Aw crud.” Our mental shot of him might be one of a schoolyard bully or the terror of the back alley brawl. The number two voice is more tentative, shown by using words like “uh oh” and “maybe”. This Lester could be the class geek who’s going to try to get away with something for once. Both tones will translate into a different sort of voice for your reader. My own choice would be the second voice because my crude side wouldn’t make for very good reading. Also, the second Lester lends himself more to a humor angle, and I love humor.
So what do you want your voice to be? Crude, tentative, tender, bold, sarcastic or comical, each has a place in the young adult genre. Each will appeal to a different sub-group within the larger definition of young adult. Some will like a loud, brash, fast paced story like Feed by M.T. Anderson. This group might consist of teenage boys who get into the irony of a future world where only a few words of “teen speak” are used to describe everything.
Another, and perhaps younger group, will prefer the melodramatic voice that Lemony Snicket uses in A Series of Unfortunate Events. Here, the melodrama has a sort of “in your face” style which we see even in the first sentence of the first book:
“If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book.”
Ugh. Can you imagine the author, handkerchief dangling from the hand at his forehead, writing these foreboding words with the other, as Egor brings him his evening sherry? What a picture. No matter what sort of story you write, you will still do it in your own recognizable voice—eventually.
“It’s so easy to get the young and the adult mixed up. The proper voice can keep it in balance…”
The YA Balancing Act
It’s so easy to get the young and the adult mixed up. The proper voice can keep it in balance, but there’s always a tension present between the two. One of my favorite examples of good balance in a story is from the Secret in the Attic by Ellen Miles (one story in her series, The 7 Sister Mysteries).
Ophelia is the sister in the middle of the seven, and we “hear” her voice as she tells the tale. That voice is a typical young teen voice: chatty, rapid fire with a bit of wit and sarcasm mixed in. When she says in the first sentence, “I never get to go first,” you recognize a typical childish whine to which any young teen can relate. But later when she states that her parents “knew from the start they’d have more than the average 2.47 children,” you know she’s got some adult in her. The author also peppers Ophelia’s speech with the aforementioned “teen speak” using words like “duh” and “Whoa, that’s so cool.”
When we start talking about older teens, those much closer to the adult than to the young, the challenge is greater. Remember, many teens read adult novels; I did, and you probably did too. So there’s much more latitude when you get into the older groups. Books like, Feed, and that classic, The Catcher in the Rye use language that would be highly inappropriate for younger kids. In your particular voice a few swear words may be the only way you can give the proper heft to your character. Overdoing it, on the other hand, could really mess up a good story.
“Many of the submissions I receive seem to have a more narrative, conversational tone than in the past, and I am in favor of this approach…”
What Editors Want
I had an article assignment, not long ago, for which I interviewed several editors whose publications cater to readers between the ages of eight and sixteen. One editor, Dale Reeves, Acquisitions Editor for Teen / Young Adult products at Standard Publishing, told me, “Many of the submissions I receive seem to have a more narrative, conversational tone than in the past, and I am in favor of this approach . . . in fact, I encourage it if it gets more young adults reading!”
One way to understand the ebb and flow of teen conversational tone is to do a little on site research. That means hanging around teens, not exactly disguising yourself as one, but seeking them out. Step into a store in the mall swarming with teens (okay, maybe Lois Lowry does do this), and let the actress in you come out. Pretend you can still wear a size two and stay in the store long enough to gather some sense of the way teens interact verbally with each other. In that window of time, the emotional range will be wide and may include anxiety, humor, anger, boredom, outrage and, yes, sweetness.
If you’re like me you may even walk away a little confused and amused. This is a sound byte of teen conversation from a group of young girls passing the door of a women’s clothing store where a friend and I were shopping recently. Girlfriend number one gestured towards the window displays and said, “This is my mother’s favorite store.”
“Yeah, this store has your mother written all over it,” snickered girlfriend number two.
These words were uttered with a moderate amount of disdain and I almost wish I hadn’t heard them. It made me feel quite ancient. On the other hand, the incident did elicit from me memories of my own teen years when clothing styles worn by anyone over twenty-five seemed hopelessly uncool. I’ve tucked that byte away and the store in question remains, nonetheless, one of my favorites.
Realize that writing for young adults isn’t just about books, either. There are ample opportunities to strut your stuff in magazines, plays, graphic comics and short stories too. And once you’ve discovered and explored the genre, you can begin to search out markets. Our culture is saturated with the young adult voice.
Companies market heavily to the ‘tween and teen demographic and by simply picking up a copy of J-14 or Seventeen, for example, you’ll come away with an idea of the voice editors are looking for. Go to My Space or Face Book to experience the YA voice in all the immediacy that those venues afford.
Know Your World Extra, a Weekly Reader publication, takes short play submissions for their Reader’s Theater, and Plays Magazine take submissions of young adult plays.
If you feel you’ve mastered the YA voice, give one of these a try (A few hours of careful research will yield you many more):
To Be Read Aloud accepts stories that are used for oral interpretation.
Stone Arch Books accepts high-interest fiction and material for graphic novels. They especially seek stories for boys.
These are but a few markets where your well-honed young adult voice can shine.
“Go upside down and loopy with it.”
A Good Exercise: Try This!
Earlier I gave you two sentences to look at and offered my take on the tone or voice of the words. One of the best ways I’ve found to define my own voice is to examine the same idea using various modes of expression. This helps me when I’m seeking to elicit a certain response in my reader.
Here’s your challenge:
Let me leave you with a short paragraph from one of my own stories and then challenge you to re-say it in as many ways as you can. Go upside down and loopy with it. Drag it out and super punctuate it. Carve it up. Whatever. Then, and this is the fun part, pick one! That one means of expression is undoubtedly your true voice, the one that will define you to the world of readers you will soon touch.
I wish I had known it was the last summer I’d spend with Joda. I was twelve and he was fourteen. We were good balance for each other. He’d yell and I’d laugh. I’d be in a screaming fury, and he’d arch his eyebrow and stay quiet I remember all the little details of the following story, more now, because it marked a changing time in my life. If only I had known. My name is Chester.
Susan Sundwall is a freelance writer and children’s author. She has had over sixty articles and stories published, and is the author of several children’s plays. She writes from her home in upstate New York where she has just completed her first novel, a mystery.